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Ofcom rules Channel 4 breached broadcast licence terms over subtitles outage

The Channel 4 building in London. (Ian West/PA)
The Channel 4 building in London. (Ian West/PA)

An Ofcom investigation has ruled that Channel 4 breached the conditions of its broadcast licence after an extended outage of its subtitle services last year.

The broadcaster experienced a number of major problems from September to November, caused by issues at the centre which handles its playout services.

Ofcom noted that the incident was “unprecedented” but found the “prolonged outage” of the broadcaster’s subtitling, signing and audio descriptions meant Channel 4 service “fell short of the statutory requirement to subtitle 90% of its programme hours over 2021 on the Freesat service.”

The media watchdog stated it also found the broadcaster had breached another licence condition by “failing to effectively communicate” with those affected audiences following the incident.

A statement from Ofcom said: “An Ofcom investigation has found Channel 4 breached the conditions of its broadcast licence following an extended outage of its subtitling, signing and audio description services.

“These ‘access services’ are relied on by millions of people to watch and listen to television, including those who are deaf, have hearing loss, are blind or partially sighted.

“Our investigation found that, as a result of an incident at a broadcast centre run by Red Bee Media, Freesat audiences who rely on subtitles were unable to fully access Channel 4 programmes for nearly two months.”

The issues arose in September after a fire suppression system was triggered at the broadcast centre of Red Bee Media, severely damaging a large number of hard disks in a variety of systems.

The extended outage of Channel 4’s broadcast channels was not fully resolved until November 19.

Ofcom noted in the report that a number of other broadcasters were also affected by the incident but to “a lesser degree”.

Following the incident, the broadcasting watchdog has insisted broadcasters must improve their disaster recovery plans.

Channel 4 privatisation
 (Lewis Whyld/PA)

It stated: “Broadcasters must improve their disaster recovery plans and processes.

“Disaster recovery facilities must be specified to carry access services, as well as sound and vision, and be regularly tested under simulated emergency conditions.

“Technical infrastructure should also be regularly audited to identify any potential vulnerabilities.

“Staff at all points in the transmission chain must be properly trained to correctly follow the disaster recovery procedures.

It added: “Broadcasters must prepare effective communication plans in case of service interruptions.

“This includes taking into account the particular needs of the affected audience, and making use, as appropriate, of their own TV channels and not just social media to communicate with them.”

Ofcom added that it will be reviewing its ‘TV Technical Codes’ later this year where it will consider what changes are needed to bring the delivery of access services in line with sound and vision protocols.

Kevin Bakhurst, Ofcom’s group director for broadcasting, said: “When things go wrong, broadcasters must have plans in place to restore important services, but also to let audiences know what they can expect.

“By failing to do this, Channel 4 let down people who use subtitles, signing or audio description to enjoy programmes.

“There are a number of lessons for broadcasters to learn from this incident. We’ve told them they must improve and test their back-up plans and infrastructure to minimise the risk of such a disruptive outage happening again.”

A statement from Channel 4 said: “Channel 4 is very disappointed with Ofcom’s decision and will review its findings carefully.

“We would like to apologise once again to our audiences for the disruption to our access services following the catastrophic incident last September and since then we have implemented a number of new systems and processes to avoid a serious incident in the future.”

The broadcaster noted that its commitments for 2022 include returning to 100% subtitled content across all its linear channels, and on its on-demand service All 4 by the end of the year.

It is also aiming to increase the amount of signing on Channel 4 and E4 as well as upping the audio descriptions on linear channels.

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